Not evidence but arguments: translating evidence into policy in Ecuador

18 November 2011

Orazio Bellettini and Andrea Ordonez, from Grupo FARO, have published a paper on translating evidence into policy in Ecuador drawing from two policy debates: Fighting Political Clientelism at Social Pograms; and the Yasuni ITT Initiative Proposal.

The Yasuni initiative provides an excellent illustration of the relationship between science and policy influence that is often overlooked in the evidence based policy discourse. The assumption is that there is a direct relationship between evidence and policy. But this overlooks the act of translating evidence into policy options and policy recommendations.

This translation is not straight forward. Evidence does not include ‘what to do’. Evidence, or what we call evidence, is about ‘what is happening’, ‘what is working’, what is not working’, ‘what is the probability that something will work’, etc. In the case of the Yasuni, scientists offered evidence along these lines:

“Our first conclusion is that Yasuní National Park protects a region of extraordinary value in terms of its biodiversity, cultural heritage, and largely intact wilderness. This region — the Napo Moist Forests of the Western Amazon — has levels of diversity of many taxonomic groups that are locally and globally outstanding. For example, with an estimated 2,274 tree and shrub species, Yasuní protects a large stretch of the world’s most diverse tree community. In fact, there are almost as many tree and shrub species in just one hectare of Yasuní’s forests as in the entire United States and Canada combined. Yasuní has 567 bird species recorded — 44% of the total found in the Amazon Basin — making it among the world’s most diverse avian sites. Harboring approximately 80 bat species, Yasuní appears to be in the world’s top five sites for bat diversity. With 105 amphibian and 83 reptile species documented, Yasuní National Park appears to have the highest herpetofauna diversity in all of South America. Yasuní also has 64 species of social bees, the highest diversity for that group for any single site on the globe. Overall, Yasuní has more than 100,000 species of insects per hectare, and 6 trillion individuals per hectare. That is the highest known biodiversity in the world.”(Scientists Concerned for the Yasuni, 2004)

This is evidence of the rich biodiversity of the Yasuni. But there is no immediate policy action that can be inferred from this. A policymaker could decide to protect it or to build a road right through it. The decision is not evidence based (although, evidence of the rich biodiversity of the area can certainly influence  or inform it) but value based. What do the policymakers value more, and why?

Are they willing to put a price to nature? If they are, then they will be quite happy to get rid of the forest if they can identify some clear monetary gains. What if they are not willing to monetize nature?

This is a point I tried to make twice last month: first at the Royal Society to a group of representatives of national scientific societies in Africa and then to the social sciences sector cadre of the Inter-American Development Bank. The point is not that science has no place in policymaking but that we must accept that values play a role too; and a very significant one.

How can think tanks deal with this? Four initial ideas

1. Work with others

As the Ecuador case suggests, think tanks must work with other organisations which may be more comfortable with the language of values: political parties, religious groups, NGOs, etc.

2. Include more views and perspectives

Think tanks should stop talking about multidisciplinary work and make it a reality. One of my favourite things about the RAPID programme was that we were a fairly diverse bunch, each with his or her own views and values (at some point the research team was made of: an economist (Peruvian), a veterinarian (British), an engineer (British Asian), an astrophysicist (British), a mathematician and philosopher (British), and a political scientist (Malawian). Not just that, but we all had different class, ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. (I am not sure we ever took advantage of it, though.) A friend recently mentioned that Danish think tanks are apparently dominated by men 10 to 1. I’ve never been one for quotas or affirmative action but it does occur to me that if anything can be done to encourage a more balanced set of skills, background and views, then maybe it should.

3. Appeal to values

Think tanks must make an effort to avoid over-stretching their use of science and instead explicitly appeal to values and other sources of power in building their policy arguments. What is wrong with arguing for justice alongside effectiveness? Or standing firm on certain values? The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) combines their research with the teachings of the Church in their messages. (I am not religious but I can see their point.) The Occupy the City of London Movement has resorted to asking: what would Jesus do (about the levels of inequality that the financial sectors are fuelling)? I am not religious but I can get their meaning. The understanding of justice that the Catholic Church was built on is not unique to it -it is a universal value.

4. Build arguments

Communication of findings is not enough when we are trying to change policy. Bigger ideas and arguments are necessary.